Monday, May 2, 2011

Wandering around the natural and abandoned in Sussex County

With spring migration in full force, it was clear that this weekend's jaunt had to include a pretty serious birding component. Wanting to get some distance and history into the equation, we found ourselves headed up State Route 23 and then along back roads to Stokes State Forest and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The weather, sunny and seasonably temperate, supported a full day outside in nature. Ivan was looking for some new birds to add to his list for the year, and I wanted my customary dose of abandoned history.

I'm accustomed to getting to the Water Gap from Interstate 80, taking the last exit before Pennsylvania, but I can definitely see the benefits of reaching it from the east, rather than the south. Rather than racing the 18-wheelers, you're gliding through small towns along two-lane roads, small businesses and ultimately, plenty of wooded acreage.

Our first stop was Tillman Ravine, just at the western end of Stokes. As you pull into the small unpaved parking lot and leave your car, you can already hear the water rushing through the ravine bed. A brief hike through the hemlocks will bring you down to the water where it cuts through this seam in the earth, and you can easily traverse the stream a few times by way of sturdy plank bridges. Unfortunately I didn't have the good camera with me, but take my word for it, this is quite a nice place to wander and maybe sit for a spell and meditate with the sound of the current passing you. Doubtless there are a good number of birds in the area, too, but with the gurgling water noises so prevalent, it wasn't easy to hear anyone singing, so we were on our way to our next stop.

Ivan had already told me I'd be surprised how close Tillman was to Walpack Center, and he was absolutely right. Normally I'd reach the small unpopulated village via the NPS road and then drive down Main Street to the one-lane bridge below, but this time I only knew we were approaching because I could see the village church on the hill that overlooks the bridge and the Flat Brook it traverses. I parked the car at the side of the road, across the bridge from several SUVs that belonged to fishermen who'd already waded midstream to their prime trout spots.

Our first stop was a grassy meadow lined with trees and a broad, forested hill in the distance. Ivan was able to spot a few species but for the most part the birds were hiding out, content to sing but not be seen. Contrary to the old bromide about children, birds should be seen and heard. Yes, their tunes were beautiful and a fine accompaniment to a refreshing spring morning, but hey, we'd like to see some feathers, too. The prairie warblers were particularly frustrating -- I enjoyed their song of buzzing notes on a scale, but I really would have liked to have seen some. I did, though, spot what we thought might have been a bald eagle, soaring in the distance.

Now, just a few words on Walpack Center, which appears, to the unknowing visitor, to be a total ghost town, complete with church, schoolhouse, post office and gas pump. This was, at one point, one of New Jersey's hidden mountain towns, but became desolate when the federal government started on plans to build the Tocks Island Dam across the Delaware River in the early 1960s. The project, designed to manage downstream flooding, generate hydroelectric power, and create a massive recreational lake, required thousands of acres of land that had been occupied by dozens of farming families, many for generations. Depending on which reports you read, the government either declared eminent domain or strong-armed the residents off their property, leaving virtual ghost towns to be torn down before the river was dammed and the area was flooded. Ultimately, a combination of factors stopped the project, which was deemed as both geologically unwise and unfair to those who had lived there. The government land was transferred to the National Park Service in 1965, creating the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Today, Walpack Center is a clutch of whitewashed buildings, including one that's used as a rarely-opened museum, and another that's occupied by a Park Service employee. As we found out, it's also a luckier spot for birds than the meadow we'd been checking out. All on my own, I spied a woodpecker bopping around in the upper branches of a tree, just before he popped into a nesthole. We also saw a nice collection of warblers in a wooded area, while standing on a stairway outside the village church. Things were looking up.

Satisfied we'd probably seen what the village had to offer, we started wandering south on the Park Service road to another spot next to a barn. Ivan had seen cerulean warblers there on a previous visit and while there was no sign of them when we were there, the songs in the air promised some really cool sightings and totally new birds for my life list. Just a few minutes after we'd gotten there, an orchard oriole stopped by on the branch of a tree just a few feet away. Very cool, but Ivan was on the lookout for an even more striking bird we could hear high up in the next tree. It was just a matter of finding it without spooking it.

And... then, there it was, perched among the fresh young leaves of the tree: a scarlet tanager! You could see him, plain as day, bright red body with black wings. (Boy, do I wish I had the camera and the right lens.) What a treat! Though he was somewhat obscured by the yellow leaves, he hung out for a good while, allowing us to get an extended view of him.

So, with those successes fresh, we drove back down Old Mine Road, checking one other spot (no luck) and keeping the windows open to listen for other bird songs on the way. There were likely other birds at other locations, but our stomachs were rumbling and we needed food pronto. We were on the way to our next stop.


  1. I used to spend every moment in this area. I love the Walpack Inn! Had a house in Montague. Did you stop at Peter's Valley? -- Tim P.

  2. Didn't have the chance to make that stop, but we'll definitely keep it in mind for the next jaunt. I'll have to tell Ivan there are ivory billed woodpeckers there, or something.

  3. The Walpack Historical Society will be hosting its annual "Van Campen Day" at the Van Campen Inn on Sunday, 10/21/12 from noon until 5 pm. The Society holds monthly meetings on the third Sunday in May, July, August, and September (June is the 4th Sunday b/c of Father's Day) at the Walpack Church. A program follows the short business mtg at 1:00 pm. Join us sometime!

    Cheryl S.


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